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Feeling more relaxed than she had felt in her entire life, Sandora was understandably reluctant to wake up and face reality. It was her feelings of guilt towards Vahn that compelled her to do so. Not because of the very inappropriate dream she had just experienced, but because he was forced to sit and wait for her to wake up. She didn't want to inconvenience him any further than she already had.
Opening her eyes, the first thing Sandora noticed was how close her face was to Vahn. A faint blush colored her cheeks, but, at the same time, a feeling of incongruency washed over her since she was well aware of the fact she was seated on his lap. Given her build, she was nowhere near tall enough for their faces to be this close…
Looking down, the color in Sandora's cheeks became far more prominent as she noticed the two pillowy mounds where relatively flat planes had previously existed.
"That would explain why I felt so fatigued…my body was preparing to undergo metamorphosis…"
Though she was presently beyond surprised, Sandora's expression didn't show it. She had already intuited that the culprit behind her sudden growth was the ring Vahn had gifted her. There was a possibility that Vahn had done something as she slept, but, even though she had only known him for a few hours, Sandora didn't think he would perform such an act without her consent.
"Are you feeling okay?"
Rather than immediately answering Vahn's words, Sandora looked to the ring on her hand with a pensive expression on her face. Her second metamorphosis was estimated to take place when she was between 60-100 years old. She wasn't particularly upset by this development but she couldn't help feeling as though a major chapter of her life had just come to a close.
"Want to try taking it off…?"
Adopting a perplexed look, Sandora looked up at Vahn as if his face held the answers to all her questions. In response, Vahn explained, "The ring I gave you has the property of amplifying the wearer's Spiritual Energy by a factor of ten. Its true purpose, however, is to nourish the wearer's spirit and allow them to resist attacks that would damage their soul. The longer you wear it, the more resilient your spirit will become…"
Looking down at the faintly glowing ring, Sandora's expression relaxed into a smile as she asked, "You were trying to protect me…?"
Nodding his head, Vahn surprised Sandora with a warm embrace as he said, "I won't force you to explain the reasons, but I could sense from the start how lonely you were. Your mind and body are remarkably stalwart for a girl your age, but, even though you possess tremendous willpower, your heart is still vulnerable. To that end, the ring serves two purposes…it is a reminder of our union and a catalyst to both strengthen and protect your heart…"
Burying her face into the nape of Vahn's neck, mixed emotions swirled around in Sandora's chest. She was grateful for Vahn's concern, but, at the same time, she couldn't help feeling as though he had only accepted her proposal out of pity. The possibility may be minuscule, but, due to her bias towards rational thought, Sandora simply couldn't dismiss it.
"So you're hypothesizing that I will return to my previous form if I remove the ring…?"
Without waiting for Vahn's response, Sandora took advantage of the fact her arms were wrapped around his body to slip the ring off her finger. The excess energy in her body didn't immediately dissipate, but, like a tub without a rubber stopper, Sandora could feel it draining from her body at an incredible rate.
Though he was a little taken aback by Sandora's actions, Vahn would be lying if he said he hadn't anticipated something like this occurring. The moment he casually proposed the idea of removing the ring, he had the distinct impression he had just become a victim to Gag Laws. Thus, even when Sandora's resized top began sliding down her increasingly slender frame, Vahn exhibited absolutely no indication of surprise. Instead, he averted his eyes before promptly manifesting a warm blanket to cover Sandora's body.
Confused by Vahn's actions, Sandora sat a little straighter before immediately covering her chest as her top slid away completely. A fiery red blush spread through her face, but, instead of crying out or tearing up, she just stared intently at Vahn for several seconds before stating, "It would appear your hypothesis was correct…"
Staring at Vahn's profile, a growing part of Sandora wanted to compel him to face her. She didn't really understand the logic behind it but she felt as though his behavior reinforced the notion he had only agreed to her proposal out of pity. She wanted him to prove otherwise, but, at the same time, she felt compelled to prove his conjecture wrong through her own actions.
Suppressing her embarrassment, Sandora adopted her characteristically serious expression as she lowered her hands and asked, "Do you have a way of modifying the ring so that it doesn't amplify my spiritual energy? If I suddenly emerged from your room in my transformed state, there is a good chance it would cause needless concerns among my people and staff…"
Noticing the glimmer of spiteful conviction in Sandora's eyes, Vahn's brows furrowed into a serious expression as he looked directly at her and said, "If you wish to demonstrate your capabilities and cultivate spiritual energy on your own, you have that right. Just don't deceive yourself into thinking you are somehow proving me wrong by refusing to accept help. I am not looking down on you nor am I pitying you. I am simply doing my best to understand and support someone who is supposed to be important to me. In time, you will come to learn this is perfectly normal behavior for people who respect and care for one another…"
Taken aback by Vahn's words, Sandora found herself at a loss for her own. She was also seized by a sudden and intense urge to cover herself, not because she was half-naked, but because she felt as though Vahn could peer into her innermost thoughts. He didn't appear to be reading her mind but that did little to make her feel better. If anything, it made her feel even more exposed…
Before Sandora could make up her mind, Vahn took her left hand into his own before retrieving the ring contained within. Multiple threads of fear and trepidation appeared within her aura, but, before she could mistake his intentions, he flipped her hand over before promptly returning the band to its rightful place, stating, "Regardless of the decisions you make in the future, know that I will continue to support you. The most important thing to me, at least in regards to our relationship, is that you are happy and healthy. Even if you were just a normal girl without any status or power to speak of, I would never, not even for a moment, look down upon you…"
Taking advantage of Sandora's stupor, Vahn reached down to grab her breastplate-like top before helping to resize and fasten it to her body. He was extremely adept at helping girls get dressed, so, by the time Sandora recovered enough wherewithal to pay attention to what he was doing, most of her outfit had been readjusted to its original size and state.
Though the same nagging voice from before was compelling her to be frustrated by Vahn's actions, Sandora managed to smother it without too much trouble. She knew Vahn wasn't fixing her clothes just because he didn't want to see her body. He just wanted to help her. It was surprisingly difficult to accept, but, seeing none of the disdain, contempt, or pity most people had when looking at her, Sandora had no choice but to accept it. Vahn wasn't pitying her, he was just being considerate…
("Since when did I start viewing compassion as an indication of scorn…?")
Unable to find the answer to such a question, Sandora did the only thing she could think to do given the present situation. She lowered her head, and, with the sincerest expression she could manage, muttered an apology. Then, before Vahn could respond, she raised her head and said, "Thank you for being so patient with me…it may not sound all that convincing after my unsightly behavior thus far, but I really do mean it when I say this…thank you, Vahn…"
Exhaling a sigh, Vahn suppressed the urge to tell the young dragoness she didn't need to thank or apologize to him. He was being pretty selfish himself, so, even if Sandora was doubly so, it wouldn't really bother him. He would have just continued supporting her until she gradually opened up and accepted the fact that she was no longer alone. There would be countless people coming forward in the future, each more than willing to help shoulder her burdens. Thus, rather than admonishing or underappreciating the depth of her gratitude, he just wrapped her in his embrace and promised, "I will always be here for you…"
Returning to her room after what had felt like an entire day, Sandora immediately collapsed face-first into her bed. There was still plenty she had to do in preparation for the banquet and her big announcement, but, for the time being, she just wanted to stew in her own thoughts.
Though she was initially ecstatic that Vahn had accepted her proposal, Sandora's excitement had diminished greatly as each and every mistake she had made during their discussion resurfaced in her mind. She didn't want to admit it, but, looking back on the way she had behaved, Sandora was able to understand what Vahn meant when he pointed out she was still lacking in experience and emotional growth.
Recalling how petulant her behavior had been at several points throughout the discussion, Sandora wished she could go back and smack her past self upside the head. Vahn was already making a lot of concessions on her behalf, yet, as if he had some duty to appease her, she had treated him as if he were somehow beneath her. All he was doing was trying to make her happy yet she had viewed his kindness as if he were trying to ridicule her…
Suppressing her sudden and intense urge to scream, Sandora rolled onto her back before raising her left hand and staring listlessly at the metallic band on her finger. The prospect of marrying Vahn still made her giddy, but, after their 'disaster' of a first encounter, Sandora had started to question if she was even deserving of him. Compared to the innumerable benefits she was bound to receive as his wife, what could she possibly give in return?
The obvious answer was her body, but, even before penning her letter, Sandora knew full well that Vahn had a harem that likely exceeded a hundred members. This included a number of women with distinctly draconic features, so, even if she really was the last remaining Salamander, she wasn't that special. In fact, based on what Vahn had revealed about his powers, he could effectively produce as many Salamanders as he pleased. In that regard, there was truly nothing she could offer him…
Giving voice to the thoughts lingering at the back of her mind, Sandora asked herself, "Why did he agree to marry me? Wouldn't it have made better sense to replace me with someone already loyal to him? Why does he care so much about my well-being…?"
Having never had genuine confidence in herself, Sandora was unable to find an answer to even a single one of these questions. She was able to imagine how Vahn would respond, but, as much as she wanted to trust him, she simply didn't know how to open her heart to others. Vahn had made a few sizeable dents in her defenses, but, until he had given her a 'legitimate' reason, the only logical conclusion was that he was pitying her. She believed him when he said he wasn't, but, as someone who believed everything happened for a reason, Sandora needed something more concrete to go off of if she wanted to lay her concerns to rest.
As sad as it sounded, the eleven-year-old dragoness needed proof that her life had some kind of value…if it didn't, what could she possibly hope to give Vahn in return…?
She had to find something…
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Booba…','Gag Laws strike again (O w O)…','This is actually kind of sad…')
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